El Mercurio
By Juan Antonio Muñoz Herrera
Konzert, 19. Mai 2018, London, Barbican Hall
A concert that is already a legend
Jonas Kaufmann strives to contribute his inner world to the sense of the works he interprets; that is why he is an artist and not just a singer. It was a magnificent opportunity to attend his first live performance of Richard Strauss’ “Vier letzte Lieder”; an adventure that involved many risks, especially because the scores have been preferably tackled by sopranos. But risks are challenges for the German tenor, as he has already shown with the “Wesendonck Lieder” (Wagner) and by assuming the two voices of the “Das Lied von der Erde” (Mahler).

This concert, held on May 19 at the London Barbican Centre, has the mark of a legend. No one will be able to forget what they experienced that night.

The “Vier letzte Lieder” (posthumous premiere in 1950) were composed for a high voice, but not specifically for a female voice, and have been a vehicle of vocal material and expressive intention for sopranos as diverse as Kirsten Flagstad, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Leontyne Price, Jessye Norman, Sylvia Sass, Kiri Te Kanawa and Anna Netrebko, among many others. Some men have already approached them, such as the German tenor René Kollo, who recorded “Im Abendrot”, the Lied that closes the cycle, conducted by Christian Thielemann, and baritone Konrad Jarnot, who recorded the four songs with Helmut Deutsch on the piano. Now the great German tenor offers his profound and incisive interpretation of the scores with the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Jochen Rieder.

The art of Jonas Kaufmann is that of an intimate expressive surrender; a song from the depth of his being, erected on an absolute control of the emotional voltage, which he doses and administers with almost religious care. He has a supernatural ability to communicate in a confidential manner the subtleties of a musical language whose life is a melismatic journey through words and syllables involved in variations of tone, almost imperceptible accents and highly complex phrasing rhythms. A musical fabric that, in the case of the “Vier letzte Lieder”, deeply moves the listener. And a vocal test which is only possible for a master, due to the dense orchestration which puts to the test the central register and also the demanding score and the total control of the song line, an essential condition to achieve flow without losing the position through this undulating Straussian road.

Jonas Kaufmann seems to observe that these scores contain that lunar recovery of the emotional life that is sung in “Salomé”, with the mystery of death competing with the mystery of love, and that there also lives in them the elegiac recognition of Orestes (“Elektra”). They also contain a visit to that open and attractive mausoleum where Wagner left his lovers (“Mild und leise”).

For some, this cycle represents the “Decline of Romanticism”, but Jonas Kaufmann’s interpretation tells us that it is rather the absolute confirmation of everything that Romanticism implied, exposed through a contemplative state of calm and hope when seeing the passage of time and sensing death. The way he approached the “wide and silent peace” (O weiter, stiller Friede!) was breathtaking, the tiredness at the end of the way, the images of sunset and the enormous question with which the cycle ends: “Is this, perhaps, death?” (¿Ist dies etwa der Tod?), not to mention what he was able to do with the fourth song, “Im Abendrot”, the only one with Eichendorff’s text.

To listen to Jonas Kaufmann in these works is to understand Richard Strauss at his 84 years and also to understand and know the tenor himself. His is a look that attends to the mysterious and ineffable path proposed by transitoriness and the step towards another state. In his voice, death is really almost a coda, because what really matters is the road; especially, the last part of it: a garden that withers (the aging man), the departure of summer (the confirmation that vigorous youth ends), the longing for rest (to sleep one night or all nights). There is a cry to the desire for silence and “Beim Schlafengehen” he refers to it when the voice is silent. Kaufmann knows that the sound contains that silence, that the silence is rest and that it is perhaps there where the music finally takes place.

In “Frühling”, the tenor emphasizes that melody that seems to have no end. Although it has a Brahmsian character, Wagner also emerges with his more extensive works after the infinity that Strauss did manage to synthesize. From the beginning, the music swells and surges from the unwanted winter garden, which Kaufmann describes with his dark voice, letting us see “the crepuscular grotto” where “I long dreamed /your trees, your blue airs / your smells and the song of your birds” (In dämmrigen Grüften / träumte ich lang / von deinen Bäumen und blauen Lüften / Von deinem Duft und Vogelsang”). And there also the encounter: “You recognize me again / you sweetly attract me, / my limbs tremble / with your blessed presence” (Du kennst mich wieder, du lockst mich zart,/ Es zittert durch all meine Glieder / Deine selige Gegenwart!).

In “September”, together with Hesse, he will talk to us about autumn and decline, with summer dying with the first rain. Here the trip is from major to minor tone, through the agonizing dream of the garden. “Beim Schlafengehen” —with an orchestral increase of winds and metals, and the celesta instead of the harp— is perhaps the most moving song of the cycle and the tenor projects it as does the soul that wants to rise, but sleep overcomes it, and the soul rises.... and sleep overcomes it… Here is where the trio of “Der Rosenkavalier” resonates, because the theme of farewell, of ending and destiny links both works: a real shudder ran through the Barbican when the artist said “to live deeply and intensely in the magic circle of the night” (Um im Zauberkreis der Nacht / Tief und tausendfach zu leben).

Finally, “Im Abendrot” is the receptacle of everything: of the best of Richard Strauss, of the Johannes Brahms of the German Requiem, of Bayreuth, of what it is to die, of the mystery of living. This Lied is a sort of mourning epilogue for the young “Death and Transfiguration” (1890), also quoted. It is impossible not to remember Brahms “Von ewiger Liebe” (“Of eternal love”), with the words of Wentzig dissolving in the darkness of the woods and fields, when “even the skylark is silent”. Or “Auf dem Kirchhofe” (“In the cemetery”), with the description of that day “filled with rain and storm” and those tombs that had written on them the words “we were”.

That is why the only encore that Jonas Kaufmann gave after this night of legend was “Morgen!” (“Tomorrow”), perhaps Strauss’ most endearing song which tells us, peacefully, that one day we, the blessed, will meet again, “in the bosom of this land that breathes the light of the sun”, and that “the mute silence of happiness will descend upon us”.

The BBC Orchestra was admirably conducted by Jochen Rieder, who knows Kaufmann and breathes together with him, something absolutely essential in a repertoire such as this one. The program began with Erich Korngold´s impressive in inventiveness and resources “Schauspiel Overture” (1911), composed when he was 14 years old. Strauss’ “Intermezzo” served as prelude for the four first Lieder, with Kaufmann in his element. An awe-inspiring “Ruhe meine Seele” opened fire, followed by “Freundliche Vision”, with the tenor reaching the summit in the phrases “Der voll Schönheit wartet, dass wir kommen” (In which peace awaits our arrival, full of beauty) and “Und ich geh’ mit Einer, der mich lieb hat” (And I walk with someone who loves me). In “Befreit”, that liberation at the time of dying-loving-possessing, Kaufmann’s voice became a thread of the time when saying “Geb’ich dir Blick und Kuss zurück” (I will return your look and your kiss) and “Dann wirst du mir noch im Traum erscheinen und mich segnen und mit wir weinen” (Then I will only see you in sleeping love, and you will bless me and cry with me). “Heimliche Aufforderung” was the perfect “Secret Invitation” for the great vocal display. Before the “Vier letzte Lieder”, Rieder and the BBC Symphony Orchestra performed the perhaps somewhat lengthy Elgar’s “In the South”: maybe we should give it another chance since this could have been due to our impatience to return to Strauss and Kaufmann.

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